The Recto Bank “Incident”: Government Narrative Trumps Survivors’ Accounts
ALMOST A month after the incident, public interest has remained fixed on the issues raised by the ramming and sinking of the Filipino fishing vessel in the West Philippine Sea. The accounts given by the victims and the Vietnamese fishermen who came to rescue Filipinos attest to the facts: The fishing boat F/B Gem-Vir 1 was anchored in the seas near Recto Bank late in the evening of June 9. They said that their vessel was hit by a Chinese boat, causing it to sink; and that the Chinese abandoned 22 fishermen in the waters. An estimated PHP 1 million worth of catch was lost, as the fishing crew was forced to salvage what was left of their boat.
An accident which could have led to the loss of Filipino lives at sea lit up a furor of media coverage. Reports highlighted the plight of the survivors and their accounts of what happened. But as government officials who had not witnessed the event began to talk about what happened, the media yielded to the latter narrative, piecing together the disjointed statements, lacking the temerity to question their interpretation or spin.
Broadcast media however fixed its visual power to capture the plight of the survivors – laying the ground for the critically important follow-up on the aftermath. Media should track how the Duterte administration responds to the challenge posed to the situation. The president himself admitted that he had struck a deal with Chinese President Xi Jinping allowing the Chinese to fish in Philippine waters. What carries greater weight with this administration – the welfare of Filipino citizens or the good relations the president enjoys with his Chinese friends?
CMFR monitored the coverage of the issue by three broadsheets (Philippine Daily Inquirer, The Philippine Star, Manila Bulletin), four primetime news programs (ABS-CBN 2’s TV Patrol, GMA-7’s 24 Oras, CNN Philippines’ News Night and TV5’s Aksyon) and selected online news sites from June 12 to July 5.
Confused Officials, Uncritical Questions
As in the case of other China-related issues, government talking heads were quick to react to the incident with little substantial information. Few reports were able to track the different accounts as these simply recorded statements which focused on whether the ramming was done intentionally. The official statement of the Chinese government admitted that a Chinese fishing vessel was involved and that what happened was “an ordinary maritime accident.” Philippine officials followed suit, ignoring the important issue – the abandonment of the survivors at sea. Most of the official statements made betrayed an eagerness to question the validity of the Filipino fishermen’s claims, including Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr., Agriculture Secretary Emmanuel Pinol, Energy Secretary Alfonso Cusi and Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo.
Fixated on official statements, reports failed to probe critical matters: the identity and accountability of the offending vessel and details of the diplomatic protest which Locsin claimed he filed.
The media reported that President Duterte had been silent on the issue for almost a week. When he spoke, he described what happened as a “little maritime incident.” In reporting the president’s words, the local media did not point it out as Bloomberg did – that Duterte stood by China’s position and doubted his own fishermen.
Duterte repeated his position – that he was not going to war with China, a statement that media again quoted without question, with no contextual reference to the record of Indonesia and Vietnam engaging Chinese vessels without a war breaking out. Only Philstar.com produced a comprehensive report countering Duterte’s insistent claim that war would happen should he act against China.
Rappler stands out for its in-depth report on June 26, “Duterte vs fishermen: Is the Philippines lawyering for China?”, which pointed out that Duterte and his alter egos doubt their own countrymen, interrogating the victims in a manner that put them on the defensive. Similarly, the Inquirer’s editorials provided sharper analysis of the discourse that the government set, raising the important questions that should have been reflected in its print news.
Airtime for Fishermen
Having the advantage of visuals, broadcast reports produced more compelling reports on the accounts of the survivors. They followed the fishermen from their rescue to their narration of the ordeal.
TV reporters also described the conditions during the meeting between Pinol and the fishermen in their hometown in San Jose, Occidental Mindoro. TV Patrol, 24 Oras and News Night said that the media were not allowed to witness the actual meeting; but reports detailed other aspects of Pinol’s visit. Reports said that Pinol was accompanied by a full force of heavily-armed policemen, none of whom took questions from journalists. After the closed-door meeting, the reports said the survivors noticeably softened on their otherwise firm stand that a Chinese ship rammed them. Media showed photos of Pinol posing with fishermen with the obligatory fist bump in support of Duterte.
TV Patrol’s coverage was the most consistent in following the story, sustaining public interest in the survivors as well as including accounts of other fishermen in other parts of the country. In print, only the Inquirer referred to the case of a similar ramming by the Chinese in 2012, interviewing fishermen who had survived the incident.
The continuing coverage of the Reed Bank incident still refers to official sources who have downplayed the incident from the beginning, distracting further attention from the legitimate concerns and issues related to the Chinese presence in Philippine waters. With the government’s obvious attempt to fudge the truth, the Philippine media’s job is clear: stick to the facts, follow up necessary official action, and keep the issue alive.
Otherwise it plays into the government’s tactic to let time pass without doing anything, betting on the short memory that media often display about the most important public issues. This is clearly one of them.